The Official Charts and the uncertain shape of them

In comparison to what it once was five, ten, even twenty years ago, the popular music industry and modern day official charts nowadays are a much different kettle of fish. Once the highlight of many a music lovers’ Sunday evening and one of the key components and reasons why music fans looked forward to the weekly edition of Top of the Pops, ranging from tape recordings to MP3 files as well as the death and recent resurgence of the vinyl; listening to music has significantly changed in the last decade at least. Whether such changes can be seen as advancements or simply further nails in the coffin of popular music depends on the individual but when it feels like technology is developing at the speed of light, those with an interest in music have to merely accept the state of the industry as it is as you feel it’s only going to keep changing as both time and technology progresses.

In spite of the many challenges musicians have faced in the last ‘digital age’ decade, to many people’s surprise one aspect of music from previous generations that remains are the official charts. Perhaps irreplaceable given that artists will always wish to know just how successful their latest single or album release has been or simply because an official charts of some sorts is a central feature to numerous countries individual approaches to music, the official charts is in many ways more than reflection current trends and popular music at any given time. Instead just as written records, photographs and accounts from centuries since passed form the basis of historical research and education about a countries past, the official chart serves to illustrate the past, present and future of popular music in any given point of time – no matter the flavour of the month, genre hype or listening trends, allowing music lovers to follow the trajectory of what has often proven to be an industry with an incredibly fast rate of change.

In time however perhaps, the decision to include the number of streams that a song has had through the likes of Apple Music, Deezer or Spotify more so than agreeing to downloads being included in physical single and album sales back in 2006, may well be viewed with some scrutiny. Clearly streaming music is nowadays an inevitable aspect of modern music and in many ways soon became an unavoidable addition to the official music charts with many fans, young and old, not only shunning the traditional methods of listening to music through heading to a local record store and purchasing a physical single or album but also much more modern ways of acquiring music through paid legal downloads in favour of using such money to pay for a monthly subscription to a streaming service where music lovers can listen to as much as they want.

Whilst there’s another discussion and a completely can of worms that can be opened with regards to the positive impact that legal streaming has had on stemming what seemed like an unstoppable flow of illegal music downloads just over a decade ago, looking specifically at the official charts and how they compare to what they once were, although we can’t say for certain but certain sections of society may well end up ruing the decision to allow streams the same privileges as physical sales in the future.

But why? Isn’t a single or several streams of your favourite song just the same as purchasing an individual single from HMV or iTunes and listening to it as many times as you wish to exactly the same? Likewise to what impact does streaming have not only on the profits in which artists would have earned (albeit admittedly minimal after illegal downloading of music became a central feature of modern day music listening) from physical sales of their music and their resultant chart position when streaming had no impact?

In 2016, only ten individual singles topped the official charts marking the lowest number of different number one singles since 1954 which saw eleven. If you compare that to five years ago in 2012 and from where we are today in a society much more focused on streaming music, there was almost quadruple that amount with a whopping thirty seven different tracks topping the charts throughout the course of the year. Likewise if you cast your mind back even further to 2002, a time where CD’s were the only real way of buying music with tape recordings dying out, even back then where musical diversity wasn’t as readily available as it is nowadays with the growth of technology and the advent of the Internet, there were still thirty two different number one singles fifteen years ago.

Of course each year is different and often dependent on an event which may have lead to a more significant or symbolic song than usual, but in these two examples at least there is a striking difference between the quantity of number one singles and to just how much the charts have weakened in the last decade and a half. One plausible explanation for such a drop would therefore be the growth of music streaming in the last two to three years leaving the charts in a very precarious position going forward. Similarly 2017 has witnessed even more records being broken as English singer songwriter not only continues to prove popular with both his adoring but also wider supporters of his music, but his complete obliteration of the competition with regards to achieving a top twenty single has been meteoric.

Following the release of new album ‘Divide’ earlier this year, Sheeran has almost dominated the official charts since its release, breaking numerous world records in the process. After becoming the fastest-selling pop album in the UK by a male artist of all time with an incredible 672,000 first-week sales and downloads, Sheeran also had a grand total of 16 tracks in the UK Top 20 earning the record for the most simultaneous UK Top 20 singles at one given time. Similarly in early January, ‘Shape of You’ became the most streamed track on Spotify in 24 hours with 6.13 million streams in the first 24 hours, escalating to 7.24 million three days later on the 9th January 2017. Such totals well and truly smashed the previous 24 hour streaming record set by One Direction in 2015, whilst the initial release of Shape of You and Castle on the Hill meant that Sheeran became both the first act to debut in both the UK and the US Top 10 with two singles simultaneously.

When you also consider that it was Sheeran who during 2014 and 2015 earned a higher number of total weeks spent in the official charts and more than any other artist in both years, his success already this year is therefore perhaps unsurprising but what damage is it doing to the official charts? You need only take one look at the Spotify streaming charts to see an almost exact illustration of the current official charts reflected in those that have been streamed the most that week. Inevitably you’d then expect this to have a domino effect which consequently keeps said songs in the charts without any significant movement for weeks or often months – just like in 2016.

Clearly there’s no way of altering just how and in which way people decide to listen to a certain artist and this freedom of choice is what makes the charts as diverse as they often have been. The ability to nowadays stream whichever artist you wish to for as many times as you like, albeit without the same cost is exactly the same as devoted music fans several decades ago showing their devotion to a certain artist through repeatedly purchasing their singles and listening to them on repeating – a trend that happens all over the world and has regularly occurred for much longer than the likes of Ed Sheeran and Drake have even been alive.

Yet their domination may make for impressive individual figures and both the financial rewards and popularity which come with it but for the good of the official charts as a Great British institution and something which not only has a popular, commercial purpose but also in many ways serves as an official historical source, you can’t help but think streaming has had a negative impact. In the grand scheme of things you may well argue in defence of music streaming services that the pros far outweigh the cons given how easy it is stream as much music as you like for the fraction of a price of legally downloading a similar amount of songs or albums but for the official charts, traditionalists may have to accept that this is simply a byproduct of the age we live in. For this reason as in many other different fields, perhaps it’s time for the official charts to continue modernising and move with the times in the continuation of its aims to make the top five, ten or twenty songs of any given week as diverse as it possibly can.

On the flip side you could point to the artists themselves as without them an official charts or several streaming platforms wouldn’t be possible and in fact is it their lack of recent, high quality output which is turning the music charts into the Premier League whereby a select group of individuals take it in turns to lift the coveted title of being top of the pike before allowing one of their closest rivals the honour as they rebuild their performances in other ways or simply compete on a much wider European or worldwide stage?

Arguably whilst there is reason to suggest that this could well be the case, it would be simply unfair on the number of artists around the world that repeatedly try, fail and try again with the faintest hope of one day succeeding, to in any way pin the blame on them. Instead for the criticisms of musicians, technology and consumer habits, unlike the modern day football fan left frustrated at a lack of instant success and equality throughout the Premier League, the best thing to do is to merely accept that just as previous decades were made unique through the wide variety of different genres and subsequent number one singles, the latter years of the current one may well be dominated by a handful of artists in the public eye. That’s not to say that genres not considered popular or featured in the official charts aren’t popular, conversely fans of rock and roll, reggae, jazz you name it are simply shoring their affection in other ways.

Therefore the charts may not make for usual reading if you’re a fan of popular music but the music on offer is no worse and certainly no less diverse than it has been in the past half a century. Recognition meanwhile comes in many forms and clearly topping the charts is undoubtedly a marvellous achievement but the wider music industry itself hasn’t become extinct, it just operates in a much different manner. As for streaming well, we all do it and for listening to music it has well and truly revolutionised in its own unique way – fully deserving of being viewed as an evolutionary progression of nowadays enjoying music. For the charts, it may have to adapt or even reinvent itself to ensure that musical diversity returns sooner rather than later but at the benefit of maintaining a solid, efficient and reliable streaming platform, you’d think it is a price worth paying.

So rather than complaining out of jealousy or frustration at Ed Sheeran’s chart dominance, let’s praise him for all the success that his music deserves. Furthermore for the good of music going forward let us simply accept and enjoy the way things are, even if that does mean feeling that bit bored by the shape of you.


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